Dead Reckoning: Scientists Weigh the Scientific and Spiritual Facets of NDEs by Mark Sauer

When Deb Foster died in a La Jolla hospital, she found herself on a stairway surrounded by cats and dogs and mesmerized by a celestial blue sky, the likes of which she had never seen on earth.

Mary Clare Schlesinger hovered above her bed in the intensive-care unit, watching her husband and daughter react in shock and fathomless grief at the thought of her passing.

Beverly Brodsky said she went on a spectacular journey through a tunnel of intense light, a magic ride with angels and a shapeless God to a place of perfect knowledge, wisdom, truth and justice.

All three said the journeys on which they embarked while “clinically dead,” a period of a few moments when their hearts stopped, transformed their lives and left them with no fear of death.

They are not alone.

Many patients – a notable study says nearly one in five – who are revived following cardiac arrest report memories of their brief time at death's door. They undergo a lucid, often indelible experience, even though they were unconscious with flat brain scans during the moments in which their hearts were still.

The near-death experiences, or NDEs, described by the three San Diego patients contain many of these typically reported elements:

An out-of-body experience; acute awareness; moving through a void or tunnel toward bright light; meeting deceased relatives; a life review; feelings of intense joy, profound peace – a feeling so blissful they longed to remain; and seeing a point of no return.

Increased survival rates from faster responses to cardiac-arrest calls, extensive CPR training, development of portable defibrillators and other improved methods of resuscitation mean more and more people could be expected to have near-death experiences.

Though it may sound like the stuff of supermarket tabloids or the latest New Age religion, NDEs are attracting the attention of distinguished practitioners who study both the body and mind.

“Some may say this is the brain's survival mechanism, that there is a physical explanation,” said Dr. Vivian Ellis, an obstetrician at Scripps Memorial Hospital who resuscitated Deb Foster after assisting with her Caesarean section.

“But I think there is definitely a spiritual aspect to this,” said Ellis. She has practiced obstetrics at Scripps for 15 years and said she has had several patients who reported NDEs to her.

“Whatever happens, it is more than science. This raises fascinating questions about human consciousness, and about light and time.”

Yet many physicians remain skeptical about near-death reports.

Dr. Robert Sarnoff, a pulmonologist who revived Mary Clare Schlesinger at La Jolla's Green Hospital in February 2001, said that in 25 years of taking care of gravely ill patients, she was the only one who has reported an NDE.

“It is not a big topic on my radar screen,” Sarnoff said.

Other San Diego cardiologists and trauma specialists declined to even discuss the subject.

Dr. Pim van Lommel said he often encounters this response from colleagues.

He is a cardiologist in the Netherlands who led a 13-year study of the NDE phenomena. The results were published in 2001 in the respected British medical journal Lancet.

“NDE is not a rare phenomenon,” said van Lommel in an e-mail interview. Yet NDEs are, to many physicians, “an inexplicable phenomenon and hence an ignored result of survival in a critical medical situation.”

“Physicians must be open and must take the time to listen to patients without prejudice.”

A most serene place

After her baby was delivered by Caesarean section on Dec. 11, 2002, Deb Foster was wheeled into a recovery room. As attendants moved her from gurney to bed, something awful happened.

She suffered an amniotic-fluid embolism, a rare obstetric emergency in which amniotic fluid entered her bloodstream, passed into her lungs and caused cardiac arrest.

For more than three minutes, the then-42-year-old, who already had a toddler at home, was clinically dead. Though unconscious, Foster says she had the most clear and profound experience of her life:

“I left that room and went to a staircase that was going up into the sky. It was so high, up past the clouds. I am afraid of heights, but I had no fear, even though there were no railings,” she said.

“I could look off to the distance and see beautiful rolling hills. The sky was the most unimaginable color of blue that doesn't exist in this life.”

Foster started crying as she described this beauty.

“There is simply peace. No chaos. No pain; the most serene place you can imagine, a perfect moment in time.”

Foster said she believed in God but questioned her faith and was uncertain about an afterlife before this experience.

“Now there is no question in my mind; there is a God, there is a heaven.”

Scientific analysis

Van Lommel noted that the effects of NDEs “on patients seem similar worldwide, across all cultures.”

He said he became interested after reading the book “Return From Tomorrow” by George Ritchie, an Army private who in 1943 was revived after “dying” from a bout of pneumonia.

“I started to ask patients who had survived a cardiac arrest if they could remember something” from when they were unconscious, van Lommel said.

That led to a study of cardiac patients who had lapsed into unconsciousness because of anoxia (deficiency of oxygen) at 10 Dutch hospitals between 1988 and 1992.

The patients ranged in age from 26 to 92; 75 percent were men. Most were interviewed within five days of being clinically dead.

Of 344 patients, 62 – or 18 percent – remembered something of the time they were dead, van Lommel said.

Two-thirds of those (41 patients) had a “core,” or extremely vivid, NDE while the other 21 were determined to have had a superficial NDE, he said.

Dr. Ellis of Scripps said the fact that most resuscitated patients do not report NDEs may be likened to the fact that some people vividly remember dreams while others have no memory of them at all.

Surviving patients in van Lommel's study who reported NDEs were interviewed again at two- and eight-year intervals, and compared with a control group of patients who did not have the experience.

Researchers were struck, van Lommel said, by how the NDE patients had been transformed.

Nearly all had no fear of death, believed in an afterlife, and strongly believed that what was truly important in life was “love and compassion for oneself, for others and for nature.”

“What might distinguish the small percentage of patients who report an NDE from those who do not?” van Lommel asked. Neither the duration of the cardiac arrest, or unconsciousness, or differing resuscitation techniques had any effect on the frequency of NDE.

“Neither could we find any relationship between the frequency of NDE and any administered drugs, fear of death before the arrest, fore-knowledge of NDE, religion nor education.”

Researchers ranging from those with scientific degrees to devotees of the paranormal to practitioners of New Age religions agree that the phenomenon of near-death experiences raises more questions than can currently be answered.

One is: If NDE is physiologically based, why doesn't every patient who recovers from cardiac arrest/coma report them?

Another is, if patients whose hearts and brain activity have stopped remember vivid experiences, what does that say about the origin of the conscious mind?

One thing is certain, van Lommel said: “The NDE is transformational, causing profound changes of life and insight and loss of the fear of death.”

A perfect light

In 1970, when Beverly Brodsky was 20 and living in Venice, Calif., the motorcycle she was riding on was hit by a car driven by a drunk.

Brodsky, who is married with a grown daughter and is retired after 28 years as a federal employee, said she suffered severe head injuries and lacerations to her face.

“They released me from the hospital with no pain medication. I was in agony.”

Though raised in a Jewish family, Brodsky said she was an agnostic at the time. As she lay in bed, Brodsky said, she feared she would pass out from the pain.

“I wanted to die. I remember praying: 'God, if you are there, take me.' With that prayer, I was lifted up out of my body. I had these terrible head injuries and pain, and I had been legally blind before. But suddenly my eyesight was perfect.

"On the ceiling was an angel in flowing white robes that glowed from within, like a lantern. I believe I was clinically dead at that point.

"He took my hand, and we flew out the window. I had no fear. We were over the ocean, and above us was this dark area. At the end of it was a pinpoint of light, brighter than anything I had ever seen. It was like a tunnel, and we went into the tunnel.

"It was a light that contained all things; everything that ever was or will be was in this light.

"There were no words, no form, no face, no structure. All communication happened telepathically. I thought, well this isn't the guy on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but this must be God.”

Brodsky has three shelves of books about NDE in her Chula Vista home. She moderates a monthly meeting for those who have had such experiences and is active in national NDE groups.

“I have never come to doubt my experience,” she said. “I see it as a great gift from God. I'm honored I was allowed to remember.”

Glimpse of afterlife

Long relegated to the realm of the paranormal, NDE burst on the scene 30 years ago when Raymond Moody, an East Coast psychiatrist, published “Life After Life,” examining reports of near-death experiences – a term Moody coined. It sold 10 million copies worldwide.

Other books and articles and studies followed, including several by Kenneth Ring, now professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut and co-founder of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS).

Ring studied thousands of NDE reports, including some by blind patients. He concluded that religious orientation was not a factor. An atheist was as likely to have one as someone devoutly religious, according to Ring, who retired from the NDE field in the late 1990s.

Regardless of their backgrounds, most patients were convinced they were in the presence of some supreme being and loving power, and had glimpsed a life yet to come.

Ring, who concluded NDEs do not have the rambling, disconnected nature of hallucination, said patients who reported them came away with strong feelings of self-acceptance, a great concern for others and more appreciative of life – more loving and more spiritual.

The power of love

Mary Clare Schlesinger is among the apparent minority who do not see religious overtones in her near-death experience.

“I had an out-of-body experience. But I see it as part of life, not a religious experience,” said the 56-year-old Escondido woman. She suffered respiratory failure four years ago from complications due to post-polio syndrome and a severe virus.

Schlesinger said she was placed on life support in the intensive-care unit and realized she was dying. “Time suddenly became very important. I could slow it down or speed it up,” she said.

“Time slowed down, enabling me to go through all of my life and consciously forgive everyone who had ever hurt me. Then it was easy to let go.”

Schlesinger, who was raised Roman Catholic, said that from her perch in the hospital room, she looked down and clearly saw herself in bed and her husband and daughter at her bedside.

“I saw Dr. Sarnoff come into the room, and I knew I had a chance; I knew he could bring me back. I saw Steve and Rebecca, saw how shaken my daughter was, and I decided to come back.

"It was not as if I were weighing a choice, though. As soon as I saw Rebecca and Steve's faces, all the energy and strength available went into coming back.

"I had incredible peace and acceptance. … It is a different kind of energy, strength and power. Survival was more about love. The love I have for life and the people I love and the love they have for me is very powerful.”

When she had recovered and returned home, Schlesinger wrote a poem about her experience, which concludes: “… my heart and soul into one/a union of love becomes ME.”

Skeptics weigh in

NDEs can be explained by neurochemistry and are the result of brain states that occur due to a dying, demented or drugged brain, notes Robert Todd Carroll in “The Skeptics Dictionary.”

Carroll cites British researcher Susan Blackmore's conclusion that the feelings of extreme peacefulness – almost universal among NDE reports – are the result of endorphins released due to the extreme stress of the situation.

“There are two basic hypotheses,” said Paul Kurtz in an interview. He is a retired philosophy professor, well-known secular humanist and founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, one of the nation's largest skeptics' groups.

“One, something leaves the body, the spirit or soul, goes to another realm, returns and reports. Two, this is a physiological process that alters consciousness, triggers bright lights, tunnel vision, out-of-body experiences and the like.

"That latter makes much more sense to me.”

Van Lommel concedes that “neurophysiological processes must play some part in NDE.”

Similar experiences can be induced through electrical stimulation in patients with epilepsy, he noted, and are seen with “cerebral hypoxia, as in rapid acceleration during training of fighter pilots.”

“Also, NDE-like experiences have been reported after the use of drugs like ketamine, LSD or (psilocybin) mushrooms.” But the perception of light, sound flashes and recollections with drug use are more fragmented and far less panoramic than that of an NDE, he said.

Most compelling to van Lommel and many other NDE researchers is what the experience suggests about one of the great medical mysteries – the nature of human consciousness.

“Traditionally, it has been argued that thoughts or consciousness are produced by large groups of neurons or neuronal networks,” van Lommel said. “How could a clear consciousness outside one's body be experienced at the moment the brain no longer functions during a period of clinical death?”

The suggestion made by van Lommel and other NDE researchers is that the mind may not entirely be the product of matter. And “at the time of physical death, consciousness will continue to be experienced in another dimension.”

Van Lommel said he likes to compare our brains with computers: “The Internet is not produced by the computer, but received by it. And in the same way, our brain functions as a receiver, not as a producer, of consciousness.”

There are still more questions than answers, he acknowledged.

“We finally should consider the possibility that death, like birth, may well be a mere passing from one state of consciousness to another.”

Mark Sauer is a Staff Writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

This story appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Sunday, May 1, 2005, Lifestyle Section, page E-1, in Editions 1,2,3. Reprinted with permission.